Extending nearly 1,200 mi/2,000 km along Australia's northeast coast, the Great Barrier Reef is one of the world's most magnificent coral reefs. The colorful outcroppings of coral and the abundance of other sea life, along with the clarity of the water, make the area a must-visit. The reef and the islands between it and the mainland are incredible places to sail, snorkel, dive, and ride in glass-bottomed boats and semisubmersible craft.
The reef begins in southern Queensland about 185 mi/300 km off the coast of Bundaberg and Gladstone. It runs parallel to the mainland as far north as the tip of Cape York, where the reef almost touches land. The lagoon between the reef and the coast includes several thousand small reefs, as well as more than 600 islands. Only about 20 of the islands have resorts, but you can camp at some of the other small islands.
The easiest way to explore the reef is on day trips from Townsville, Cairns, Port Douglas and a few other places along the coast. Tour companies are everywhere and offer a variety of tours. Travelers should be aware, however, that after travel time is subtracted, a day trip leaves only about three or so hours for snorkeling and diving.
Most operators offer a scuba experience for noncertified divers. They'll give you a quick lesson and take you down to see what you're missing. Boats range from large, comfortable catamarans to small, intimate yachts. Budget-priced excursions also abound, but some boats are slower and offer fewer services and possibly a noisy, crowded trip. Experienced divers should spend several nights aboard a dive boat. You can see more of the reef if you travel north of Cairns to the Coral Sea (the Yongala Wreck and the Cod Hole are two popular dive spots).
Another option is to stay on one of the coral islands near the reef. Three of them offer overnight accommodations and operate a variety of boat, air or helicopter services for viewing coral areas and fish. Our favorite is Heron Island, which is reached by air or a two-hour boat ride from Gladstone. We recommend that first-time visitors stay at least two nights. It's an ideal spot for divers, nature lovers and those wanting to get away from it all, and the dining is good. (Heron is a bit more formal than many of the other islands.)
You can visit Green Island on a day trip from Cairns, or you can overnight at its small luxury resort (http://www.greenislandresort.com.au). The closest coral island to the mainland, Green Island offers good snorkeling, scuba diving and coral viewing. Lady Elliot (reached from Bundaberg or Hervey Bay) is the southernmost coral cay on the reef, offering white-sand beaches, diving, reef walking and fairly basic accommodations in cabins and safari tents.
The other resort islands are high or continental islands, which are actually the tops of submerged mountains. They are located at varying distances from the outer reef. You can stay on one of them and take day trips by boat to the outer reef. Among the more popular of these islands are the following:
Dunk Island—This island south of Cairns will appeal to those who love nature. It is covered by rain forest and bougainvillea, and butterflies fill the air. With its nice beaches, Dunk is a good, slightly upscale family destination. http://www.dunk-island.com.
Great Keppel Island—Reached by plane or boat from Rockhampton, Great Keppel Island Holiday Village offers a range of accommodation options (tents, cabins, cottages or a house) and outdoor activities such as bush walking, swimming and canoeing. http://www.gkiholidayvillage.com.au.
Hamilton Island—This island, which is part of the Whitsunday group located south of Townsville, is one of the most developed on the reef, with a marine village, restaurants, cafes, bars, watersports and a large high-rise resort, as well as a range of other accommodations. In addition to underwater attractions, there's a nature park on nearby Dent with emus, koalas and kangaroos. It's an excellent family destination. Hamilton can be reached by air or boat. http://www.hamiltonisland.com.au.
Hayman Island—Also part of the Whitsundays, Hayman is one of the most deluxe resorts on the reef. Lying near the Tropic of Capricorn, it has a beautiful lagoon. The island's 214-room hotel offers its international clientele ample opportunities for diving and snorkeling, sailing, bush walking, golfing and playing tennis. Most visitors arrive by air or boat on Hamilton Island and then take a luxury launch transfer to Hayman. http://www.hayman.com.au.
Lizard Island—The most northern of the resort islands, Lizard is known for its deep-sea fishing (especially marlin), snorkeling, great scuba diving (especially Cod Hole) and the harmless monitor lizard that lives there. The island is informal, yet it's a luxury resort that will appeal mainly to those who love to get away from the crowds. The island, which is 180 mi/270 km north of Cairns, can be reached by air. Some small cruise ships and dive boats stop at the island. http://www.lizardisland.com.au.
Long Island—Part of the Whitsundays, Long Island is easily reached by ferry from Airlie Beach. Long Island Resort, a family-friendly resort, dominates the island. A swim-up bar, a lagoon that houses a fringing reef and walking trails are only some of the activities to keep you busy. http://www.longislandresort.com.au.
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